February 22, 2020

Circumcise your heart: Parashat Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)

A friend who works for the federal government wrote recently to say that because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act), she was able to add her wife to the family’s insurance plan. “I never thought I would get emotional while on the phone with an insurance company, but I did.”

The same month the U.S. Supreme Court made it possible for gays and lesbians to once again legally marry in California (by saying the defendants of Proposition 8 had no standing to appeal) and receive the same rights under federal law as other married couples, the same court made it harder for employees to sue employers for discrimination and challenged the idea that voter discrimination still exists in significant forms (immediately paving the way for more discrimination to be put into place). Meanwhile, across the way in Washington, D.C., Congress put immigration reform and gun-law reform on hold. And in Florida, the jury verdict exonerating George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin sparked protests, marches, demonstrations and a rebirth of discussions on racism and the legal system. 

Yet, as we turn to this week’s Torah portion, Ekev, we see Moses — close to death and anxious to instruct the Israelites in everything they need to know before entering the Promised Land — reminding the Israelites about one of the most oft-repeated mitzvot: 

“[God] loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. You too must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:18-19).

In the Book of Exodus, in another of the many times in Torah we encounter instruction about how to treat the stranger, we are reminded that having been strangers in Egypt, “you know the soul of the stranger” — atem yadatem et nefesh ha-ger (Exodus 23:9).

This week, the reminder about strangers comes in a larger context: “And now, Israel, what does God ask of you?” V’atah Yisrael, mah Adonai elohecha sho-el mei-ee-makh? 

Only this: to revere God, to walk only in God’s ways, to serve God b’chol l’vavkha u’vakhol nafshekha “with all your heart and all your soul” (Deuteronomy 10:12).

Moses and God know this won’t be easy. They’ve seen for 40 years already in the wilderness that it’s not easy, perhaps not in the nature of most human beings. Moses advises an odd remedy: “circumcise the foreskin of your hearts, stiffen your necks no longer” (Deuteronomy 10:16). What could it mean to circumcise one’s heart? Perhaps it means to cut away a metaphorical outer coating, whatever prevents the heart’s tenderness from coming through, whatever keeps us fearful of others, of strangers, and prevents us from showing another what is in our heart. Perhaps the foreskin of the heart is what keeps us from wanting to know the heart of someone else, be it a friend or family member, or a stranger walking down a street in our neighborhood. Perhaps this commandment makes being tenderhearted a non-gender-based “sign of the covenant,” a kind of brit milah we must perform repeatedly on ourselves, as adults.

The 15th century Spanish commentator Abravanel, himself a survivor of the Inquisition who went to Italy in 1492, wrote: “A stiff-necked person cannot look behind to see how his actions have led him to where he finds himself” (Abravanel as quoted in Etz Hayim Torah commentary, p. 1043).

There is something so poignant in this coincidence of court cases, failed legislation, protests and demonstrations while Jews continue our annual reading of the Israelites bidding farewell to Moses and preparing to make their way into the Promised Land. There’s something powerful in reminding ourselves that God long ago called us to do exactly what these marchers and protesters, commentators and demonstrators are doing — to circumcise our hearts, to trim away the tough shell of fear and defensiveness, and to open our hearts to others; to remind ourselves that we know how it feels to have governments turn against us but also to accept us; know how it feels to be mistreated by human beings, even ones who teach that all of us are beloved children of God.

This week is the second of the seven Sabbaths of consolation and comfort, the Sabbaths between Tisha b’Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, and Rosh Hashanah, one of the most optimistic of our Holy Days. Our sages say the destruction of the Second Temple — one of the destructions we commemorate on Tisha b’Av — was caused by sinat chinam (senseless hatred). On Tisha b’Av, we remember how easy it is to be too stiff-necked to look behind and see what brought us here, even our own actions. But as we walk together toward Rosh Hashanah, we work to open our hearts and look around — and within — that we might better come to know not only the souls of others, but each of us our own soul, too.

Lisa Edwards is rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim (